"You've come into my house and are throwing sh*t around while blaming me for something we have never claimed to do to try and sell your bullsh*t book. When someone drives drunk and mows down ten people, do you blame General Motors? To put it another way, take your lies and get the hell out of my house." - Peter Shankman, founder of HelpAReporterOut.com
Peter Shankman seems a little defensive doesn't he? (Especially the part where he threatens to punch me in the face.) I suppose I can't blame him. This week, I exposed HARO, the service he founded, for what it is: a cesspool of media manipulation and enabler of bad journalism.
My belief is that today's media cycle -- which is driven by blogs -- is broken. It is being ruined by several factors including the crushing deadlines, advertising conflicts, pageview quotas, poorly trained journalists, greedy publishers, laziness and countless other practices. These perverse incentives distort everything we read, hear and see, whether you're on Gawker or CNN or some tiny blog. When I first uncovered this, I used it to my advantage as a publicist for big brands and bestselling authors. But as I began to see the dangerous effects of these incentives, I decided I would lay this all out and expose it in a book.
One target: Help A Reporter Out. Why? Because it embodies everything that is wrong with much of modern online journalism. HARO is a social network that connects reporters with "expert sources" (publicists) so that the experts can shill their products, and thus the reporters don't have to bother doing any reporting. The site's actual tagline is: "No such thing as free PR? There is with HARO."
I'll be very blunt about this: the idea that HARO is a service to "help" journalists write better stories is complete and utter bullsh*t. Putting journalists and "sources" in the same secret room together does not serve a greater good, it merely services both parties self-interest to the detriment of the readers and their news. It's bad for journalism, and bad for truth, but even though everyone in the industry despises it, its corruption is so addictive and pervasive and lucrative, no one wants to be the one to kill it. This open secret is well known in journalism, and I find it incredibly hypocritical, so I set out to expose it.
I personally used the service to appear as a fake "source" and a quoted "expert" in dozens of media outlets worldwide including ABC News, MSNBC, Reuters, and the New York Times (the Huffington Post did not fall for these obvious tricks). HARO and the media had left the front door wide open and I wanted them to understand. Other critics have done so in the past, but, as Upton Sinclair pointed out about a hundred years ago, "it's difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."
So I went directly to the public with my findings and the news went off like a bomb. It made the front page of Reddit.com with nearly 1,000 upvotes, it was Friday's lead on the front page of Yahoo.com, and the events were analyzed by everyone from the Poynter Institute to PRWeek. The original Forbes article which broke the news was the site's most popular article for most of the week and read nearly 100,000 times.
Initially, the response was good. The journalists I spoke to were as appalled by the news as I was. Journalism news maven Jim Romensko told me he felt that the duped reporters "got what they deserved." Media reporters at places like Poynter and Reuters emailed me privately to thank me for what I'd done and committed to doing stories about exposing it. Thinking that my efforts had made a difference, I even emailed the New York Times reporter I had been a source for and apologized, "I hope it doesn't cause issues for you and I'm sorry if that happens," I said. "I think the problem here is with the system... I never thought my expose would reach all the way to the New York Times, but it did and I felt obligated to take my point to its ultimate conclusion."
But then, instead of spurring any change in the industry, I found journalists and PR people addicted to HARO trying to change the subject. Some powerful people -- who apparently care more about their reputation than the truth -- circled the wagons and decided to make ME the problem. Their personal attacks on my reputation were designed to pressure news outlets to cancel my appearances. Outlets I'd caught with their pants down quietly pulled their stories or blamed me for their nonfeasance. Like the New York Times, who instead of apologizing to its readers for its embarrassing mistake, called me a liar in an Editor's Note.
I realized pretty quickly what was happening: because I told an embarrassing -- shocking truth -- because I exposed something that cannot be defended on any ethical or logical grounds, HARO and lazy journalists tried to shoot the messenger. The system, to protect itself, decided to marginalize the whistleblower and make me look like an aberration. It was easier to call me a liar and a bad person than to admit that the media actively seeks out and publishes lies from marketers every single day.
This attack against the truth is being led by the worst of the hypocrites, Peter Shankman himself. His defense of HARO is clearly motivated by self-interest. He founded HARO, then sold it for potentially millions to the massive PR and marketing software company Vocus, where he now sits in a cushy VP job. He had to attack me to protect himself.
But his defense of HARO might not be the worst example of his hypocrisy. Shankman loudly yells that I am just pulling a "stunt" to sell books, yet he is a man who LOVES publicity stunts -- so much that he wrote a whole book about them called: Can We Do That?! Outrageous PR Stunts That Work--And Why Your Company Needs Them. It only turned out that my publicity stunt was exactly what his company didn't need... because it ruined the entire con it was running. This isn't the pot calling the kettle black; this is the pot calling the kettle the n-word.
Yes, HARO is just a service and as the middleman Peter can't be held totally responsible for lazy reporters who don't fact check their sources. But then again, it was being aware of such laziness that likely drove him to create the site in the first place, and THAT is precisely what he exploits as a publicist. And today, it's what makes Peter defend the indefensible monster that HARO has become. He makes too much money from it.
I guess one could say that, in some ways, Peter and I are similar. We both understand how the media system works. We both wrote books about it. The difference is that I sub-titled my book "Confessions of a Media Manipulator" for a reason -- I was trying to explain these corrupt influences and help change and improve journalism.
My efforts fundamentally get in the way with what Peter is trying to do: line his own pockets by keeping the system broken. He doesn't want you, the reading public, to know how the sausage is made. Because he owns a sausage factory.
Follow Ryan Holiday on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ryanholiday